Racialized Beauty: Lived Experiences of Beauty and Race, The Impact on Black Women's Self-Esteem, and The Development of Resilience and Empowerment

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Swarthmore College. Dept. of Sociology & Anthropology
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For a long time in American society, blonde straight hair, blue eyes, a slim figure and milky white skin were uplifted as the standard of beauty. "The use of standards that characterize the ideal beauty as 'young women with milky White skin, long blonde hair, and slim figures' (Jones and Shorter-Gooden 2003: 194) meant that black women, by default, could never be beautiful because they can never be white (Jones & Shorter-Gooden 2003)''' (Gardner 2008:2). This racialized beauty ideal that preferenced Eurocentric features over that of Afrocentric features (kinky hair, wide nose, big lips, curvy body, dark skin) stemmed from "centuries of colonialism and slavery that distinctly categorized lighter-skinned Europeans as superior to darker-skinned Africans" (Frevert and Walker 2014). But, nowadays, the issue of racialized beauty standards moves beyond the internalization of a "white is attractive and blackness is undesirable" dichotomy. In comparison to 60 years ago, several black women and people of color have now graced the covers of magazines. These women such as Beyonce Knowles Carter, Halle Berry, and Lupita Nyong'o have skin tones ranging from light to dark and have been labeled by media as the most beautiful women in the world (Esha Saxena 2018). The desirable body type which was once skinny has shifted towards admiration of curvy body types often associated with black women and other women of color. While black features seem to be gaining more recognition as "beautiful" in media, this study examining black women's lived experiences on beauty and race reveal that beauty as conceptualized in the United States is still largely informed by America's racial history. The interviews reveal how through the concept of beauty, a society with a racist history, creates a facade of progressiveness while actually upholding racist ideologies. With this thesis, I propose that beauty is a site constantly being negotiated and renegotiated. My research sought to give accounts of African American women's understanding of their value and self-worth while existing in a society whose conception of beauty is informed by a racist history. The first section of this study examines the impacts ofracialized messages of beauty on black women's self-esteem. Majority of the interviewees report feeling invisible and inferior. Thus, the second section of this study examines the methods black women have used to develop resilient strategies against adverse effects of racialized beauty standards.